Onward and Inward
So what do we know so far? People are still staying near home but seem to be following their educated appetites. Helen's Garden (2908 O'Donnell St.,  276-2233), in Canton, offers an inviting atmosphere and wide-ranging, wonderfully inexpensive food. Pork chops and homemade mashed potatoes sit alongside globally influenced fare such as shrimp sautéed with coconut, basil, peanuts, and lime. Seafood is a strength, with selections varying daily--if you see the cornmeal-crusted catfish, grab it. Persian salad (mango, pear, feta cheese, and lime vinaigrette) and veggie pasta dishes take care of vegetarians. The wine list suggests vintages, by the glass, to match many of the entrées. And desserts include a spice-scented carrot cake and fluffy, heavenly coconut cake.
The city needs more restaurants like Lauraville's clever Chameleon Café (4341 Harford Road,  254-2376). The petite dining room is tucked in the back of a modified rowhouse, the front of which is dominated by an open kitchen. The menu is brief but bold, and changes with the seasonal cycle of ingredients; winter delights include fried oysters over fennel-scented spinach and a roasted duck breast with fig-cherry compote and porcini risotto, perfect when paired with the salad of grilled lettuces with goat cheese. Warmer months bring a stellar heirloom-tomato salad, and the pan-roasted free-range chicken is available year-round. We follow it all with a bittersweet chocolate soufflé, pierced with a spoon and then filled with crème anglaise and raspberry coulis poured from little pitchers. The server will let you do this yourself if you ask nicely.
Suzie's Soba (1009 W. 36th St.,  243-0051), in Hampden, takes a fresh approach to Asian fare, with an emphasis on noodle dishes. The dining room is softly lit and decorated in shades of cool green, and there are many equally soothing items on the menu. Steeped in broth with a variety of meats and vegetables, udon, soba, and potato noodles become gently savory soups. Sushi is beautifully presented, and there's delightful ginger lime chicken, served cold with mango and avocado. House-made desserts step outside the usual green-tea-ice-cream ghetto--try the banana tempura.
Among the many side effects of Sept. 11 was that it lent an odd geopolitical resonance to dining out. Some Americans shunned Middle Eastern restaurants, while others, in a diametric show of support, rushed to patronize (perhaps in two senses of the word) their favorite falafel stands.
Nowhere, though, has the world news hit closer to home than at the Helmand (806 N. Charles St.,  752-0311), the city's long-reigning queen of Afghan cuisine. Owner Qayum Karzai is the brother of interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, and the family's attention is preoccupied with rebuilding their country. Even so, customers are still seeking this Mount Vernon restaurant's addictive kaddo borawni, sweet baby pumpkin in yogurt garlic sauce. To say nothing of the leek-stuffed aushak, the piquant shornakhad (salad of chickpeas, potatoes, onions, and cilantro), and the banjan borawni (stewed eggplant with yogurt)--all served swiftly and charmingly in alluring surroundings.
In keeping with its name, House of Kabob (8025 Harford Road, Parkville,  663-0211) offers 16 different kebab combos, our favorite being the kobideh, spiced meatballs threaded with onion chunks. But unlike most of the area's other kebab huts, this homey Persian restaurant also offers many un-skewered delights. The kashko bademjan (eggplant puréed with yogurt and mint) and fessenjan (chicken in a pomegranate and walnut sauce) are amazing, especially with just-baked rounds of flatbread.
Mount Washington's tiny, fetching Desert Café (1605-7 Sulgrave Ave.,  367-5808) offers freshly made Middle Eastern food alongside specialties from all over the globe. While we appreciate daily offerings like quiche and salmon, our hearts are with the mijaderah (seasoned rice and lentils with caramelized onions and yogurt) and zaatar bread (flatbread with sesame seeds, thyme, and olive oil). Baba ghanouj and hummus are first-rate; the mango curry chicken salad with golden raisins is world-class. For dessert, there's a bit of local history: The Gondeck cake, a chocolate-iced, cream-filled rum cake, was named for its inventor, the former chef at Pimlico Race Course.
It's too soon to tell if the current craze for dining from multiple small plates will be a long-lived development or just a passing blip. But an unprecedented number of tapas restaurants have opened in recent months. The Charles Theatre's next-door neighbor, Tapas Teatro Café (1711 N. Charles St.,  332-0110), is lovable, though it would be even more lovable if we could ever get a frickin' seat. Still, we're smitten enough to hang around the fringes, waiting for one of the little tables to come free. The food is made for nibbling--get a pitcher of sangría and have the server just bring each plate as it's ready, rather than waiting for everything at once. Nearly everything that's arrived at our (long-awaited) table has been smashing: grilled calamari; marvelous new potatoes, roasted and served with cilantro and sour cream; charcoal-grilled lamb chops in a tart but honeyed rhubarb sauce. For impatient diners, the saffron-scented paella is served as a meal-sized portion.
Red Maple (930 N. Charles St.,  547-0149), the newest of the new tapas restaurants, is a gorgeously designed Mount Vernon space, with low tables and artfully arranged free-floating banquettes, warmed by two fireplaces and a plenitude of candles. The diners go to see and be seen, and the food, Asian-influenced tapas, is made to be admired too--the baby vegetable plate has miniscule whole squash, onions, eggplant, and carrots spilling from a spring-roll wrapper shaped like a grocery sack. We feel smashingly clever just eating there, till we fumble the chopsticks and drop a morsel of pesto-smeared steak onto the suede sofa--um, wait, that was some other party.
For more traditional, and affordable, tapas, we're fond of Fells Point's Arizona Tapas Bar (25 S. Broadway,  342-4426). Bring a Spanish-speaking friend or just a willingness to smile and shrug. Either way, you're in for a table full of spicy, saucy tidbits in one of the city's most energetic and friendly Latin restaurants. Seafood is a standout--the ceviche is excellent, as is the divinely tender garlic octopus. After a few pitchers of sangría or several rounds of Carta Blanca you just might find yourself working off that paella on the tiny dance floor.
Price Point (3/3/2010)
EAT: City Paper's annual dining guide
Harbor Area (3/3/2010)
Nice Tea (7/28/2010)
A foolproof guide to a summer staple
Welcome Home, Big Beef (4/28/2010)
Taking the grass-fed beef by the horns and cooking it
Let It Snow (2/24/2010)
Making sweet treats out of the fluffy white stuff
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201